At the nearby farmers\’ market there is a little old couple–actually, they are probably my age, but never mind–who sell potatoes. Tiny red ones the size of meatballs; deep indigo ones bursting with phyto-nutrients; and waxy, buttery, elegant fingerlings.
Most of the vendors at the market sell more than a single product. Especially at this time of year, the vegetable farmers sell everything from chard to pumpkins; the meat sellers offer squash; and even the potter sets out a basket of garlic next to her mugs. But not the potato couple. They only sell potatoes.
In a crowd of vendors most of whom look like graduate students who ditched their dissertations to go back to the land, the potato couple are old-time farmers. They\’ve been growing potatoes for so long that they\’ve come to resemble their product, short and squat and a little lumpy. She deals with the public and he deals with the truck and the tent and the crates. She refers to him not by name or as \”my husband,\” but as \”He,\” as in,\”He planted a lot of Dutch Creams last spring.\”
I imagine their farm, a no-nonsense place north of here. No Araucana hens laying colored eggs in charming coops, no mache or endive sprouting year-round under glass. Just potatoes, and maybe an old dog, and the two of them at the kitchen table with the TV on now that the children are gone. And on Sundays, the trek to the farmers\’ market to sell to summer people and flatlanders and leaf-peepers who park their SUVs by the side of the highway and carry their purchases in New Yorker totes.
Last week when I went to the market the heavens suddenly opened and the rain came down in torrents. Tents flapped and leaked; people could hardly hear each other speak for the noise of the water; and the Indian summer day suddenly turned cold. The potato couple\’s tent was at the bottom of the field. He had strewn a bale of hay in front of the potato table, but I nevertheless sank down to my ankles in mud. She was doing her best with customer relations, but I could tell that she wanted to go home.
How much longer, I wondered, will they be able to do this–planting and weeding and harvesting and storing the potatoes, plus the endless round of farmers\’ markets? Do they have any help at the farm? Do they have savings, a pension?
Except for the wealthy, buying produce at the farmers\’ market is a moral gesture. Yes, the food is usually better than what you find at the supermarket, but it is a lot more expensive. It doesn\’t make immediate financial sense, but buying from these small local farmers is an act of faith and hope in, and charity towards, the community. Vermont, which has the lowest rates of church attendance in the country, leads the nation in the proportion of food that people buy locally, and even on that rainy Sunday the parking lot was full and cars were lined up by the side of the road.
This is good news for the potato couple, and for the young families with their college degrees, their home-schooled children, and their dreams of raising food sustainably. But given the perennially shaky economy, I wonder how long Vermonters will be able to continue to support their farmers.
For as long as possible, though, those of us who can would do well to spend part of our Sunday buying garlic from the potter, some soup bones from the meat lady, and a couple of pounds of tiny red potatoes from the potato couple. There are, after all, many ways of attending church.